Don't blame me (or 4,091 other voters), we tried for home rule
In November 2005, the people spoke, and the message could not have been clearer. Almost 70 percent of the voters delivered a resounding "thumbs down" to the proposed Northumberland County home rule charter.
The charter, which was itself a reaction to the fiscal calamities of the Cwalina-Lewis administration, was never an easy sell. Authorization to form a commission to study home rule was approved in November 2003 by a small margin. People have a natural aversion to change and, if Northumberland County had approved home rule, it would have been part of the narrowest exception rather than the rule. At the time of the 2005 vote, only seven of Pennsylvania's 67 counties had functioning home rule charters.
It didn't help that the charter that was recommended to the voters contained serious flaws. The thoughtful objections that were raised by home rule opponents - most notably, Fritz Reed, the well-respected retired register and recorder, himself a member of the home rule study commission - resonated with voters. Nevertheless, even with the charter's flaws, home rule could have averted the dysfunction, the drama, the incivility, the rash of lawsuits and the endless string of controversies that grip Northumberland County government today.
Why? Had home rule been instituted, the three-member board of commissioners composed of Vinny Clausi, Stephen Bridy and Rick Shoch would never have happened. That's not to say these three men would have been unelectable - far from it. Any of them, or perhaps all of them, could have been elected to the seven-member board established through home rule, but none of them would have enjoyed anything approaching the influence or power they have now. They might not have even wanted the job.
The three-member board of commissioners that functions under the traditional system serves as both the executive and legislative branches of county government. The board sets policies and identifies a broad agenda, but, with the help of program supervisors and managers, also exercises broad managerial control in the execution of programs and services. It has become a full-time job, and commissioners are paid accordingly.
Under the home rule charter, the $10,000 annual salary paid to member would have made it impossible for most, if not all, of the elected commissioners to be involved in day-to-day county operations. Most of the commissioners' work would take place at scheduled board or committee meetings, and the actual management of county government would have been placed in the hands of an appointed county administrator. The commissioners' role would have become primarily legislative, not executive. The environment would have been roughly analogous to that of a local school board and a well-paid, highly professional superintendent of schools.
Obviously, home rule would not have eliminated the possibility of personality clashes, power struggles and indiscriminate back-biting among commissioners, but with seven, rather than only three, people making the decisions, there is far more likelihood that clearer heads would prevail. Even if an individual board member decided to engage in public sniping, daily operations could still proceed normally, because it would take four, or, in some cases, even five votes to change policy or procedures.
Under home rule, voters would have elected two commissioners at-large (countywide) and one from each of the five districts. Term of office was four years for at-large commissioners and two years for district representatives. This would have given voters the opportunity to shake things up every two years if the board started to resemble a rowdy kindergarten class.
After Cwalina and Lewis bade their fond farewells in mid-2003, conditions improved under an interim board and the new board that was elected that year, despite the bad-tasting medicine that was prescribed to remedy the county's fiscal woes. At the time home rule was debated, county government seemed to functioning much better. Home rule critics argued, with some justification, that the county's problems had not been caused by the three-commissioner system, but rather by the people who were in office.
Yet, here we are again. Dysfunctionality is the new normal because commissioners are constantly at each other's throats.
A theory: Northumberland County's governance stems from the collapse of what was once a robust system of political parties. In an era when people took their party affiliation seriously, the three-member board of commissioners, in which there is a guarantee of minority representation, functioned well.
That is not to say partisan politics does not have its ugly side, and indeed few would want to go back to a time when strong (at times even dictatorial) county chairmen held sway over the decision-making process and patronage ran rampant.
But even though the system produced more than its share of political hacks, it also allowed for the emergence of quality leaders like James P. Kelley, a Democrat, and Lawton W. Shroyer, a Republican. Kelley and Shroyer, who knew how to wield power with the best of them, nevertheless comported themselves like the gentlemen they were and treated the opposition with respect. By the way, their approach to building solid working relationships was the same whether they were in the majority or minority.
There is a long tradition in Northumberland County politics of "single-voting" commissioner candidates, rather than voting for both nominees of the same party. The system reached a new height in the 2011 election when it was "every man for himself" and one candidate, Bridy, actually ran as an independent. It's always going to be hard to persuade three "Lone Rangers" to form a posse.
In 2005, there was concern that under home rule, an appointed county administrator would emerge with more power than the people's elected representatives. And, of course, the boundary lines that were drawn for the districts defied logic; Shamokin Township was in the same district as Mount Carmel, and one district snaked its way from Montandon to Elysburg.
Most of all, there was widespread concern that a board of seven members would be more unwieldy than a board of three.
Looking at the current situation, that just doesn't seem possible.
(Jake Betz is assistant editor of The News-Item.)